What makes writing ‘academic’? Part II

Family Resemblances and Narratives

A digressive post around Laurel Richardson, academic writing, and narratives

Laurel Richardson is a sociologist that one of my PhD supervisors mentioned in conversation back in May. At the time, I noted it, but didn’t follow up immediately. I then attended a PESGB talk in Nottingham in June (Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain) on ‘What do We Mean by Higher Education?’. The talk was given by Professor Mel Leicester who used Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances to argue that ‘higher education’ has no univocal meaning but is a cluster concept which refers to a diversity of educational contexts; these contexts may share resemblances (such as the awarding of a degree), but they can also be diverse in their contents, ethos, and modes of delivery. This, she argued, implies that there are no uniquely identifying traits that sharply demarcate ‘higher’ education from other domains where teaching and learning occur; there are only resemblances to other contexts, just as members of the same family are ‘sort-of-the-same-but-not-quite’.

Leicester’s question immediately resonated with my own, ‘What makes writing academic?’ (although, I’m not approaching the answer in terms of family resemblances). Her approach was to focus on what we might mean by the word ‘higher’ in the phrase ‘higher education’; mine is to focus on what we might mean by the word ‘academic’ in the phrase ‘academic writing’. Both questions are born of the realisation that there is great diversity in what is referred to as ‘higher’ education and that, similarly, there is great diversity in what counts as ‘academic’ writing.


A heated discussion (in Paris, on war, 1870)

Mel’s talk was appropriately interactive: rather than adopt a ‘present-and-discuss-at-the-end’ format, she made a series of short claims and then opened the floor for reactions. This ensured that her audience was able to get all manner of burning (counter)examples aired and shared, and it also meant that we got to chat to the other participants. This is how I was reminded of Laurel Richardson: somebody on my table was doing a PhD on how narratives shape identities, and he referred to Richardson.

Having made a connection with my supervisor’s earlier suggestion, I have now read Richardson’s brief ‘Writing Strategies: Researching Diverse Audiences’, a sociological account of how writing works in the academy in which Richardson exemplifies the social nature of academic writing through both theory and practice. She claims that all ‘meaning’ is embedded in the narratives we weave:

Narrative is the primary way through which humans organise their experiences into temporarily meaningful modes (Polkinghorne, 1988, p.1). People link events narratively. The meaning of each event is produced by its temporal position and role in a comprehensible whole. Narratively, to answer the question ‘What does something mean?’ requires showing how the something contributed to the conclusion of the episode. The connections between the events is the meaning (emphasis in original, p. 21).

The way narrative emerges from social relations can be seen in the following claim, where Richardson locates scientific writing within a system of parts and wholes:


Parts and wholes – water (the whole) and H20 (the parts); or how the whole in no way resembles its parts

When we write science […], we write a narrative and create some kind of narrative meaning. Narrative, as understood here, is not confined to literature or case studies but is one of the two basic and universal cognitive modes – the other being logico-scientific (Bruner, 1986). ‘Narrative meaning is created by noting that something is a part of a whole and that something is a cause of something else (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 6)” (Richardson, 1990, pp. 12-13)

She also argues that meaning emerges from connections between events:

Unlike the logico-scientific mode, which looks for universal truth conditions, the narrative mode is contextually embedded and looks for particular connections between events. The connections between the events is the meaning. (emphasis in original, p. 13).

So, on Richardson’s account, what would make writing ‘academic’ may have something to do with the narratives – the connections – it weaves, or with the way that those narratives are woven, or the way that something emerges from its constituent parts …

What I like about Laurel’s account of scholarly writing is that she foregrounds the writer as the agent who weaves that narrative. Initially, I had pigeon-holed her in the relativist camp that postmodernism tends to be associated with because of claims she makes about the ‘rhetoric of science’ and the way it ‘marshals facts’ (cf. pp. 15-16, where she offers an inspired insight into Darwin’s writings by claiming that the ‘survival of his thesis’ depended on his rhetorical style). However, she artfully anticipates her reader’s objections with the following statement in which she rejects the postmodern theses of Derrida and Barthes in favour of what she calls ‘progressive postmodernism’:

[…] the postmodernist impulse has been to delete the author, to dismantle distinctions between fact and fiction, and to deconstruct the difference between sign and signified […]. As the speechless are given voice and the power to name and be named through progressive writing, the postmodernist theorist would disempower them by erasing their names, deconstructing their stories, undermining their ground for authority. A progressive-modernist rewriting, however, proposes that, because all knowledge is partial and situated, it does not mean that there is no knowledge or that situated knowledge is bad (p. 27).

In essence, she accuses postmodernists of disempowering the very people they wish to empower because of their nihilistic stance towards knowledge and the advocates of knowledge (i.e. authors). Moreover, whilst still preserving some of the relativistic veneer of postmodern epistemology, Richardson very much champions the presence of the author:

Because knowledge is always partial, limited, and contextual, there is no escape from subjectivity. Subjectivity is constructed in specific contexts; it is not eternally fixed. Qualitative researchers can more comfortably than positivist empiricists adapt to a postmodernist epistemology. As qualitative researchers, we can more easily write as situated, positioned authors, giving up, if we choose, our authority over the people we study, but not the responsibility of authorship of our texts (p. 28).

To conclude, Richardson’s thesis suggests that what can make writing scholarly (i.e. academic) is the way that writers choose  – responsibly – to weave their narratives, connecting parts to allow wholes to emerge.  And this now starts to connect with my thesis …

Reference: Richardson, L. (1990) Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences Sage Publications, pp.5-65


One thought on “What makes writing ‘academic’? Part II

  1. Pingback: What makes writing academic? Part III | Academic Emergence

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